We spend our waking moments thinking random thoughts. Constant thinking is the price we pay for the marvelous neuronal flexibility, quickness and creativity.
By Jamshed Arslan, PhD
In this essay, I will elaborate on the origin of aimless thoughts and what we can do to pay attention. Before moving forward, let us familiarize ourselves with three layers of our brain.
Three brains in human head
Mammals share common ancestors with reptiles and non-mammals. So, human brain can be divided into three functional stages of evolutionary growth.
- First is the so called reptilian brain, consisting primarily of the brainstem and cerebellum. It has similar brain connections as a lizard. Reptilian brain is ancient and performs regulatory functions like breathing, temperature control and basic life-maintaining functions.
- Second, on top of the reptilian brain, is the limbic or emotional brain. In contrast to lizards, we have complex fear, arousal and sexual feelings; thanks to the limbic brain.
As you may have noticed, the above two brain layers are largely automatic.
- The third brain, on top of reptilian and limbic systems, is what makes us humans; it is the cortex or neocortex. Cortex is concerned with executive functions like critical thinking. What we perceive as ‘lost in thoughts’ can be the excessive or out of focus cortical functioning. Each thought is a product of millions of neuronal connections.
Please note that these three ‘brains’ are interconnected. For example, if you ponder upon religious intolerance in Pakistan (activity of cortex), your heart-rate shoots up (activity of reptilian and limbic brains) because of this intercommunication.
Origin and benefit of random thoughts
Just like breathing, perpetual thinking comes natural to us. Research has pointed to various evolutionary advantages of fleeting thoughts. Constant thinking helps us respond to almost any comprehensible command. As you read tomato, Taj Mahal, Israel, photosynthesis, each word projects image(s) or understanding associated with that word. You did not wait for a minute or two for the concepts to appear in your mind. This is exactly what neurons do, albeit with the help of other supporting cells in the brain. However, in order to be successful in this feat of instantaneous imagery and comprehension, neurons need to keep generating random thoughts in your mind.
Who is authoring these thoughts? The answer is, no one. It is the neurons that keep provoking each other, rather aimlessly, to generate random thoughts. This phenomenon prepares the brain for virtually any unforeseeable situation. With inputs from reptilian and limbic brains, your cortex produces random thoughts because you might need an item or two from those thoughts for the future. Creativity may just be a byproduct of spontaneous thoughts.
Pay attention through boxing of thoughts
The function of folders in your computer is to categorize miscellaneous stuff. You can train your mind to separate one thought from the other. For example, if you are having a rough day at work, you do not need to bring all that negative energy to home; otherwise, you are going to ruin your family’s time as well. You need to box the work-related thoughts and keep them separated from your home-related activities.
One way of boxing thoughts is the mindful meditation, which makes one realize how listless most of our thoughts really are. In one form of mindful meditation, you pay attention to your breath as air goes in and out of your nostrils. You let all the thoughts appear on their own and passively observe them. With mindful meditation, you can develop a habit of noticing the aimless nature of thoughts and stop reacting to them. Further down the line, you will learn to keep one idea from interfering with the other, or even when it does, you will not unnecessarily react to each thought.
At the end, it is the process of thinking that shapes our lives, as put beautifully by Walter D. Wintle in his poem “Thinking”:
If you think you are beaten, you are;
If you think you dare not, you don’t.
If you’d like to win, but you think you can’t,
It is almost a cinch you won’t.
If you think you’ll lose, you’ve lost;
For out in this world we find
Success begins with a fellow’s will
It’s all in the state of mind.
If you think you’re outclassed, you are;
You’ve got to think high to rise.
You’ve got to be sure of yourself before
You can ever win the prize.
Life’s battles don’t always go
To the stronger or faster man;
But sooner or later the person who wins
Is the one who thinks he can!